“It’s almost always something I play on the piano,” singer-songwriter Randy Newman tells Rolling Stone of the genesis moment in his craft, the first step he takes into a new tune and story. “It inspires a code of some kind – maybe dummy lyrics, something I can get rid of. But after a couple of lines, it will become what it’s going to become.
“It’s always been a job,” says Newman, 73, one of American pop’s greatest and most acclaimed songwriters for more than a half-century and an Academy Award-winning composer for animated films. “I go to the piano, and I’m supposed to think of something. It’s always been that way – maybe because of the way I grew up.”
Born in Los Angeles and raised for a time in New Orleans, Newman – who has just released Dark Matter, his first studio album in nine years – was fated to go into his family’s business. His uncles Alfred, Lionel and Emil Newman were famous Hollywood composers with ten Oscars and more than 50 nominations between them. Randy’s father was a doctor. But “as a kid, studying music,” Newman says, “that’s where I hoped I was headed.”
He took the long road, starting in the early Sixties as a songwriter for other singers. Many of his early, classic songs were first recorded by or successes for artists such as Gene Pitney, Dusty Springfield and Three Dog Night. Newman’s only major hit under his own name was the jaunty 1977 satire “Short People.” But his six Grammys and 2013 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame reflect the greater, enduring impact of Newman’s slippery storytelling, pointed, social observation and rapturous melodies, delivered in a singular, deadpan-Everyman voice.
Newman’s only problem as he looked back through this list: He couldn’t always remember when he wrote what, if it was “1967 rather than ’65 or ’66. Lenny [Waronker, Newman’s longtime producer] would know. I should have asked him before I did this.”